The first Mission: Impossible film was an elaborately nonsensical piece of eye candy, little more than an excuse to outfit Tom Cruise in tight black clothes. For the much-delayed and big budgeted sequel, producer-star Cruise has enlisted director John Woo (Bullet in The Head, The Killer, Face/Off) and scribe Robert Towne (Chinatown) but we still couldn’t care less about the plot.
The film begins with the voice-over confession of the biochemist who created Chimera and a rather elaborate airplane hijacking. It’s a James Bondishly disorienting way to begin a film, especially as the action suddenly zips to Utah where Hollywood’s golden boy, Tom Cruise, is hanging from the side of a cliff. Portraying himself as a masculine celebrity thrill seeker more than he seems to be playing his character, Ethan Hunt, Cruise breathlessly climbs a treacherous stretch of rock without ropes, harnesses or even a net. The plot hasn’t even really begun yet, but we’re potentially hooked: there’s our Tommy dangling dangerously out there. In fact, this is a thrilling sequence nearly spoiled by the footage shown in the film’s trailer but still impressive on the big screen that has nothing to do with the rest of the film and trumps everything that follows. Although comprised of a series of swooping shoots, the scene is stylistically simple because the audacity of the adventure is enough. It’s an elegant filmmaking choice that should have been carried through the rest M:I-2, but isn’t.
When Hunt reaches the top of the cliff, a helicopter swings by with his next assignment: track down the hijackers who ran off with the Chimera samples before everyone worldwide is infected with the DNA-engineered superflu. He is told that his crew of three fellow teammates must also take on the foxy Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton), cat burglar extraordinaire. Hunt finds Hall in Sevilla, Spain, where he foils her plot to steal a Bulgari necklace worth half a million dollars. (It would seem to be less trouble for more booty to knock off a Bulgari store or Tiffany’s or Harry Winston’s rather than jet to Spain for a necklace, but that’s another matter.) Soon, Hunt and Hall are revving their Porsche and Audi, respectively, in an altogether unoriginal mountain road car chase that ends with them, naturally, falling in love. The two waste no time hopping into the sack what better way to get to know your new high-stakes coworker? but soon afterwards Hunt discovers that his new lady has been chosen because she is the bad guy Sean Ambrose’s (Dougray Scott) ex. Hall is instructed to seduce Ambrose and report back to the team. The head of the spy agency, Swanbeck (Anthony Hopkins), specifies that her duty is “to go to bed with a man and lie to him. She’s a woman. What training does she need?” And who says Hollywood doesn’t respect women?
Despite their good lighting, Cruise and Newton have little chemistry, and their romance has none of the delicious rivalry found in the far superior recent summer flicks Out of Sight and The Thomas Crown Affair. Wandering around for most of the film in a baby tank top and jeans, Newton looks remarkably unfabulous, even though Lizzy Gardiner (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) is the film’s costume designer; Cruise sports a tasteful black leather jacket, but he is overdue for a haircut. Of Cruise’s performance, little can be said, except that he rose to the challenge of performing several stunts. And Newton, fascinatingly nonverbal in both Beloved and Besieged, here sleepwalks through a nothing (and sole female) role that theoretically should make her a star. It’s depressing to see an actress’ “breakthrough” role as one that establishes her as a strong, independent character and then repeatedly reduces her to the damsel in need of the hero’s love and protection. At the very least, the coupling of Cruise and Newton may indicate that Hollywood is more relaxed about interracial relationships; then again, they’re both so beautiful in that movie star way that race may be irrelevant. (Except, apparently, in the case of “black sidekicks”: reprising his role as Hunt’s techie partner, Ving Rhames again plays the down-to-earth Luther Stickell; unfortunately, he has no more to work with than a laptop, and none of the charming character quirks of his role in Out of Sight).
There is little to like about Towne’s script from the weak female character, to the overexpository monologues about the development of virus and the mythological beast Chimera, to the stilted dialogue. At one point, Hunt says, with no appropriate embarrassment, “We just rolled up a snowball and tossed it into hell. We’ll see what chance it has.” Woo attempts to work with the unwieldy script by making his famous directorial mark evident down to his signature move of having actors sliding across the floor while unleashing a rain of bullets from two guns at once. Unlike the antiseptic, highly formal Mission: Impossible, directed by Brian DePalma, Woo’s M:I-2 is filled with flourishes of hyperbolic slow-motion action or over-the-top, death-defying stunts. Under Woo’s direction, Hunt/Cruise (is there really a distinction?) takes acrobatic leaps instead of simply kicking the bad guys in the gut, and all the characters know how to jump their motorcycles Evel Knievel-style.
The action and the intended-to-be-graceful moments are more silly than stunning, prompting more laughter than applause. At one point, Hunt/Cruise, surrounded by flames and foregrounded by a slow-motion dove, winks at Ambrose. Such a preposterous moment might not have seemed out of place in, say, Roman Polanski’s overblown The Ninth Gate, but here it calls attention to Woo’s need to be fancy. There are pumped-up moments that work the way an action flick should the rock-climbing credits sequence, a motorcycle chicken fight but more often than not, the effect of the film is unsexy, unintentionally comic, and uninspired in its shoot-out choreography. M:I-2 is an empty, if pleasant-looking and intermittently entertaining, summer divertissement. And we’re left to ask: is it such an impossible mission for Hollywood to make a big-budget popcorn flick that is genuinely engaging and smart?